As a work of non-fiction, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals faces a difficult balancing act: it must be personal enough to engage the reader’s interest, but without overlooking the (potentially less engaging) statistics that will endorse its claims. Of all the non-fiction works I’ve read, I have to say that Eating Animals has accomplished this balancing act most successfully. Jonathan Safran Foer forefronts his own position, and the book is in many ways a personal journey for the author, which lends the book a sense of honesty absent from a mere polemic. Eating Animals is not a straightforward account of the evils of meat consumption, but instead an engaging attempt to reconsider our attitudes towards food and its production. The author raises his own doubts, and leaves space for the reader to disagree, as well as including a range of different voices and positions on the issue, including the views of a PETA worker, a vegetarian cattle rancher, and a turkey farmer.
Eating Animals presents a somewhat philosophical account of our attitudes towards food, presenting both the facts of meat production and a sociological explanation for our dietary decisions. The inclusion of these two somewhat contrasting approaches casts the arguments for and against vegetarianism into a new and illuminating light. The idea of food as part of the narrative of our lives was particularly compelling:
There are thousands of foods on the planet, and explaining why we eat the relatively small selection we do requires some words. We need to explain that the parsley on the plate is for decoration, that pasta is not a ‘breakfast food’, why we eat wings but not eyes, cows but not dogs. Stories establish narratives, and narratives establish rules.
Sharing a meal is an act of sociological significance: we eat with our families and friends, and by eating together, solidify our relationships. To turn down an offer of meat is to exclude yourself from the group, and goes some distance towards explaining why so many people choose simply not to acknowledge the question of animal welfare in the first place.
In one chapter Jonathan Safran Foer raises the issue of the difficulty raised by the keeping of pets: how can we explain the difference between the ‘meat animals’ on our plates and the ‘pet animals’ that share our homes and our hearts? As a pet owner myself, I found myself agreeing with Safran Foer’s description of his dog, George: at times she is part of the family and seems almost human, yet on other occasions she is unknowable, wild, and distinctly dog. This reminded me of Thomas Nagel’s argument: we can know animals well enough to project ourselves onto their experiences of the world, but perhaps we’ll never know how it feels for a dog to be a dog. If we can’t understand animals, does that count as an argument against vegetarianism? Safran Foer defines anthropomorphism as ‘the urge to project human experience onto the other animals, as when my son asks if George will be lonely’. While this may at first seem like a sentimental or romanticised way to consider animals, perhaps applying our understanding of the world to our animal companions is the best we can do. Isn’t it enough simply to know that they feel pain, hunger and affection just as we do?
I can’t recommend Eating Animals highly enough, but only if you’re prepared to re-evaluate your whole approach to food. Eating Animals is not a book to open lightly.